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by Terry Heggy

August 17, 2020

Just be sure they understand exactly how to do them or you’re wasting their time and yours

Gather a stout pole, some hefty rope, and a passel of firewood—you’re going to want to burn me at the stake for heresy. My proclamation for today is this:

Drills are the greatest evil in the sport of swimming!

There, I said it. I can hear the mob grumbling and can see the pitchforks waving in the air. But wait just a second. Before you set the Bic to the wick, let me explain.

A well-designed drill will have a specific purpose, and an expert coach will explain that purpose with clarity. But despite your best efforts, I guarantee a percentage of your swimmers will misapply what you tell them. And this problem appears regularly during the freestyle recovery.

For example, a head-tapping drill designed to emphasize the catch could be misinterpreted such that your swimmers mistakenly think it’s somehow important to move their hands as close to their skulls as they can. (It’s not.) The term “high elbow” (which I would recommend you delete from your vocabulary) can result in swimmers contorting their bodies to uncomfortably position the elbow above the spine during freestyle recovery.

You need to make sure your swimmers understand the result you’re looking for rather than getting hung up on the effort to perform some theoretically perfect motion. The truth is that there are a lot of different ways to perform a successful freestyle recovery.

Recovery is the phase of a stroke that repositions body parts after the power or propulsive phase to establish proper position to begin the next stroke.

Elements of a Good Recovery

As with the idea that drills can be misinterpreted, you must understand that the recovery motions of individual athletes can vary wildly while remaining effective. In other words, what a freestyle arm recovery looks like out of the water isn’t important. It doesn’t need to be pretty; it just needs to achieve its goals. A good freestyle recovery:

  • Begins at the end—The arm must finish the power phase of the stroke before releasing and exiting the water. A recovery that starts too early (e.g., exits in front of the hip) is surrendering potential power.
  • Holds tempo—The quicker the hand reaches the next catch position, the sooner your swimmer can begin the next stroke.
  • Stays relaxed—No energy is spent clenching fingers, lifting elbows too high, or decelerating the hand before entry.
  • Avoids impingement—Every athlete has unique body mechanics, so a movement that’s easy and natural for one could injure another. Know your swimmers’ limitations, and allow them to work with what they have to prevent injury (even if it means their stroke looks weird).
  • Supports breathing—Recovery is linked to body rotation and breath timing. Mistimed exhalation or head rotation can cause problems with arm recovery and vice versa.
  • Moves forward—Because air offers little resistance, there’s no significant drag created by arms that swing out to the side during recovery. Indeed, such arcs may be the most effective way for some swimmers to get their arms back out front. But the penalty comes if angular momentum impacts alignment or hand position at the catch. Whatever happens in the air, make sure the hands enter the water and find the catch position directly in front of the shoulder without sideways movement of any submerged body part.
  • Immediately establishes the catch—While an immaculate fingertip entry might be optimal, don’t insist that everyone’s entry is identical. The important thing is instant establishment of the catch position without waving from side to side, pushing water forward (fingers higher than elbow), or creating grip-destroying impact vortices (when you can’t see your hand through all the bubbles).

As you observe and analyze recovery motions, look beyond the arm to understand the gestalt of the swimmer’s motion. A slow spot in recovery could be related to range-of-motion restrictions, improper head position, or even poor kick technique. Keep those relationships in mind when selecting drills to improve recovery.

Teaching Good Recovery

Remember how I said that drills can be evil? As you give swimmers instruction and feedback, anticipate ways your athletes will overthink your words to draw erroneous conclusions. Clearly define what you want them to learn from the drill.


Fins can make it easier to achieve the purpose of arm-oriented drills, and I’d recommend them to support the drills described below. Caveat: Body position can change when the fins come off, so each fin-aided drill should immediately be followed with regular full-stroke and barefoot swimming focused on the movement practiced during the drill.

Catch-up baton drill

A catch-up drill moves one arm at a time through a full stroke cycle while the other remains in the forward catch position until the other arm catches up. A shoulder-width stick or pipe is held in the stationary arm until the other hand grasps it as the opposite arm performs its cycle. The first purpose is to establish the habit of aligning the entry/catch point with the shoulder to avoid crossover (the “railroad track” arm position.) The second is to learn the proper catch depth. Therefore, the baton should not be buoyant; it needs to be at a depth where the shoulder and elbow remain higher than the hand.

Caveats: Doing catch-up without a stick invites crossover, but holding a stick doesn’t orient the hand properly for a catch. (It’s gripping a stick, remember?) Also, there’s a tendency for the swimmer to spend time in a flat orientation (shoulders parallel to the surface), rather than in proper continual rotation.

One arm drill

The swimmer holds one arm stationary to the front (catch position) or at the hip (near the exit/recovery initiation point) and rotates the other through the entire stroke cycle while focused on relaxed recovery and proper entry into the catch position. Breathing to the stroking side helps the swimmer’s awareness of the recovery motion, while breathing to the stationary arm side helps the swimmer develop kinesthetic awareness of unseen motions. Holding the stationary arm in front helps with catch position awareness, while holding it at the hip forces better core engagement.

Caveats: One-arm swimming risks rotating only to one side. Although the drill does enable the benefit of being able to watch and assess the catch motion, it could habituate a high head position. Weak kickers may also experience the urge to bend in the middle (i.e., sacrifice core stability) to compensate.

Recovery-focused swimming

Rather than isolating movements with drills, isolate the focus by asking swimmers to forget the pace clock and instead concentrate on how their recovery feels as they swim at a normal relaxed pace. Ask them to think about one arm at a time (odd lengths left, even lengths right, for example). Narrow the focus to just one component for each repetition (e.g., relaxation or breathing), eventually covering all the elements of a good recovery cited in the bullet list above.

Caveats: What’s easy at a relaxed pace may become challenging with increased intensity. Try ramping up the effort levels in tiny increments while holding onto proper form.

Don’t expect immediate or dramatic results. Another shortcoming of drills (and any technique work for that matter) is that old habits tend to return as soon as focus shifts to something else. Therefore, we must continually reinforce changes to achieve sustained improvements.


You’re the coach and your swimmers look to you for direction. And yet, when you tell swimmers their elbow enters the water before their hand, you may encounter the Spock eyebrow of disbelief. It helps to have evidence. Showing your swimmer a single video may generate a better corrective effect than a dozen drill sessions.

In the grand scheme of things, freestyle arm recovery may not rate the attention required by other stroke elements. Consider incorporating these drills on days when the swimmers need rest after a barrage of intense workouts. Work on recovery during, well, recovery.


  • Technique and Training


  • Drills
  • Freestyle